Pyramid Peak, located just outside of Aspen, stands at 14,018 feet and is the 47th highest mountain in Colorado. In contrast to its aesthetically symmetrical neighbors, the Maroon Bells, Pyramid has a raw, jagged quality evidenced in the broken yet graceful lines that adorn the rugged peak. Elegant striations in the rock end abruptly in piles of chaotic stone like an unfinished sculpture, giving an effect of menace. When set against dark storm clouds, Pyramid Peak could easily be seen as the alpine fortress of an evil wizard. Perhaps that ominous aura is part of the allure of attaining its summit.
As far as fourteeners go, Pyramid is one of the more difficult peaks to climb, but is well within reach of experienced hikers who are comfortable with scrambling. The standard northeast ridge route is considered nontechnical, but requires good route-finding skills on unmarked terrain.
Depending on your navigational abilities, the least technical way to the top involves solid class 3 scrambling on good rock with the occasional class 4 move, so no ropes are needed. There are a few airy spots, but the exposure is limited, and if you happen to lose your way, the local population of mountain goats may just help you get back onroute. They are regulars on Pyramid’s upper reaches.
The geology of Pyramid Peak is consistent with other mountains in the Elk Range: lots of crumbly rock held loosely together by ancient and decomposing stone. Dark red clays and gravel are the remnants of an ancient tropical inland sea that was pushed skyward more than 70 million years ago. Igneous intrusions produced granodiorite (a volcanically formed rock similar to granite) and pushed up quartz beds. The resulting mountain is a combination of solid sections offset by rotten gullies. Testing every handhold is essential to not pop prehistoric stones out of their sockets.
And yet, despite all the natural madness on its chossy slopes, Pyramid is a delight to climb, and not just for masochists. Starting from the Maroon Lake Trailhead, the standard route begins in a dense grove of aspen trees, with the glorious Maroon Bells in the background. A short distance along the trail, an easy-to-miss (especially in the predawn hours) cairn signals your last steps on a well-maintained path. Winding up to treeline, the trail eventually becomes a mere suggestion. Several well-meaning cairns can serve to confuse as much as to guide. Breaking out of timberline brings you to the amphitheater, a dark bowl that leads to the access gulley to Pyramid’s exciting ridgeline. Once in the gully, a relentless but somewhat enjoyable hike brings you to the coup de grace: the magical summit ridge.
The aforementioned mountain goats are a curious lot, and many climbers have reported being “escorted” to the top by the dexterous ungulates. As the route unfolds, the scrambling is more solid and enjoyable than it looks at first glance. There are a few sections of gutsy moves, including an off-camber “leap of faith” across a small gap and a class 4 push up the green gully, a stack of whitish-green rock with good hand- and footholds. After zig-zagging through rock towers and ledges, the final ascent to the top is a breathtaking experience.
The nearly flat and accommodating summit offers impressive views of the Maroon Bells, as well as stunning vistas of the lower Elk Range Peaks. An autumn climb is especially rewarding, as golden tracts of aspen color the lower valleys and a dusting of snow highlights the shadowy inset rock bands on nearby mountains. Don’t be surprised if one of the enterprising mountain goats follows you all the way to the apex of Pyramid Peak.
If you decide to climb Pyramid, be certain to bring along a helmet and leave your dog at home (sorry, Fido). Ropes are discouraged, as they can actually increase rock fall and make for more dangerous conditions. The scrambling is at times exposed but never desperate, though good route-finding skills are essential (websites such as 14ers.com and summitpost.org are excellent resources for maps and route descriptions). An early start is required. Even though the standard northeast ridge is only about eight miles round trip, the climb can easily take seven to 10 hours. Leaving no later than 4 a.m., ideally on a weekday, will stack the odds in your favor.
Pyramid Peak is a scrambler’s delight and, despite an intimidating presence from a distance, it is truly one of the most fun and beautiful 14ers in Colorado. The summit is in reach for peak-baggers who like route-finding and don’t mind the occasional patch of exposure. And if you go, please say hi to the mountain goats for me.